COPENHAGEN -- As traditional Chinese medicine (known as TCM in Europe) becomes increasingly popular worldwide and has gradually been regarded as a useful component to Western medical treatments, Denmark is no stranger to such trends.
According to a study published by the University of Copenhagen in mid-Feb., up to one-third of Danish hospitals choose complementary or alternative therapies, including TCM methods, to treat pain, cancer, mental disease, tumors and infertility. Acupuncture remains the most widely-practiced form of these treatments, used in some 97 percent of the cases.
The nationwide acceptance of acupuncture and massage therapists, the growing ranks of herbal practitioners, and the hosting of an annual pan-Scandinavian TCM conference since 2007, all underline the popularity of alternative medicine, including the TCM, in the country.
However, the overall market presence of TCM, and herbal medicines in particular, is relatively small in Denmark and Europe at large. As many European policymakers insist that traditional herbal medicines "are neither scientifically documented nor tested according to Western requirements," these treatments face difficulties in obtaining licenses and boosting sales in Europe.
In fact, despite their historical pedigree and widely-accepted efficacy, TCM products are often classified as "healthcare products" or "food," rather than "drugs" in European markets.
A big challenge for TCM products to gain more access to the continent is the EU's Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive, which stipulates that all such products must obtain authorization if they are to be sold within the EU, starting May 1, 2011.
The directive says producers must prove the product in question has been used for 30 years, 15 of which within the EU, so as to ensure its safety.
While licensing is expected to be onerous and expensive, Denmark has tried to bring TCM products into the Western medical mainstream from as early as 2005. The country's well-developed biochemical and medical industry, modernized agriculture and horticulture sectors and a strong track record of cooperative research in these fields, has helped TCM's cause.
For instance, Traditional Complementary Medicine Denmark, a company helping herbal product makers market their goods in Western countries, uses modern biotechnology processes and clinical trials to scientifically verify and document the efficacy of existing herbal medicines.
It also advises herbal product makers on how to align their standards with European requirements so as to acquire the necessary sales licenses. Sometimes, simple solutions like clearer and more detailed labeling of a TCM product's ingredients can help improve its marketability. Patent applications and drug approvals procedures must follow, before the product can access the EU pharmaceutical market, usually in pill form.
Investing in herbal medicine also makes financial sense for Denmark, as it is encourages development of low-bulk, high-value agricultural products, which can be easily transported all over the globe.
Development Centre Aarslev, a Danish agro-research body and partner of TCM Denmark, studies the active ingredients contained in medicinal plants and their impact on human health conditions such as cardiovascular problems, diabetes and allergies. One of the earliest collaborations it undertook with a producer of herbal medicine showed the effectiveness of extracts from the hips of the dog rose plant in treating rheumatoid arthritis.
A spokesperson for the institution said, "We have documented analytical evidence which shows that arthritis patients can reduce their consumption of conventional anti-arthritis drugs by up to 50 percent, if they combine them with the herbal drug based on dog rose hips."
Given Denmark's population of 5.5 million people, this could translate into savings of 200 million U.S. dollars a year on anti-arthritis medication, the spokesperson added.
Other plant-based interventions could hold wider public health benefits. TCM practitioners say herbal medicines can improve blood circulation in humans, and contain naturally-occurring antioxidants which can reduce the risks of heart attacks and better regulate cardiovascular functions. This has potentially wide-ranging benefit for Western societies, where heart disease is a major threat.
Heart disease was the most common cause of death in Denmark until 2000, and cardiovascular disease the commonest until 2008, with cancer now ranking the biggest killer.
In fact, TCM herbal remedies are also considered a good choice for cancer treatment, as certain plants contain hormone-like substance which can influence hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer.
TCM supporters say the obvious benefit of such an intervention is the avoidance of more commonly-used chemotherapy and radiation treatments which often produce severe side-effects in patients. Relevant herbal therapies can help strengthen cancer patient's immune system, reduce side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and alleviate other symptoms of the disease.
Given the many potential benefits of TCM, the EU's tightening of rules may appear harsh. Still, TCM is considered a relatively novel approach to medicine in Europe. Moreover, the dominant market share and general clout of the chemical-based, Western pharmaceutical industry also makes it difficult for traditional remedies to stake their claim.